Solutions that filter out unintended 911 calls from wireless handsets--the so-called "butt dials"--can save significant time for telecommunicators that can be spent answering legitimate emergency calls.
A couple of weeks ago, we posted a video in which Mark Spross, communications manager for the Clackamas County (Ore.) Department of Communications, talked about a solution his center has deployed that filters out unintended 911 calls made from wireless handsets —the so-called “butt dials,” which plague(PSAPs) from coast to coast.
That posting elicited an e-mail from Larry Hatch, assistant director of Washington County (Ore.) 911, who wrote that his county has used the same solution—the XMU+, which is produced by Calgary, Alberta-based Interalia—for the last five years. Hatch said that two other counties in the state deploy the solution—Land, in which the city of Eugene is located and Multnomah, in which the city of Portland is located. He claimed that the solution intercepts one-third of the wireless 911 calls made to his PSAP, having deemed them to be unintended.
“These are calls that the person on the other end has no idea that their call [were placed to] the 911 center. … You can hear people singing along with their radios, taking groceries out of shopping bags or talking with their kids,” Hatch said.
In the past, the big problem was cellular phones that had exposed keypads, according to Hatch. The “9” key was programmed to automatically dial 911 if it were depressed and held for a few seconds. It’s easy to imagine just how easy it was to make an unintended emergency call, especially when one slipped the phone into a back pocket. When flip phones hit the marketplace, Hatch thought the problem naturally would be solved. Think again. For reasons that he can’t explain, unintended calls continued to represent about one-third of all 911 calls fielded by his PSAP.
Somehow, Hatch learned of Interalia’s solution, which was being used in Reno, Nev. The solution doesn’t bother with trying to discern whether the call is intelligible; rather, it measures the amount of noise that’s on the line, according to Sebastien Di Meglio, Interalia’s global sales manager.
“When you talk into your phone, your voice is converted into current, and we pick up that current,” Di Meglio said. “It works like a voltmeter. Remember when we were kids, and we were recording tapes? If we spoke too loud, the needle would move into the red zone. With our solution, if the call is loud enough, it gets connected—if it isn’t, it doesn’t.” Di Meglio added that the solution is configurable, so each agency can set the threshold for when a call gets connected.
When a call’s loudness falls below the threshold, the caller receives a message that instructs him to speak or press any key on the phone if he truly is experiencing an emergency. The message is then repeated in Spanish. If no response is received, the system automatically disconnects the call, without any involvement of a telecommunicator.
Hatch said that his agency sets the sensitivity low to guard against accidentally missing a legitimate emergency call. He further called the decision to deploy the solution a “no-brainer.” He estimated that that average 911 call fielded by his center lasts 1:15 and said that the solution blocked about 25,000 unintended 911 calls in the first six months of this year. Do the math, and you’ll find that the Interalia solution saved Washington County 911 more than 500 telecommunicator hours just in the first half of 2013. Now think about New York City, which receives about 4 million unintended 911 calls annually, according to Di Meglio. No brainer, indeed.
Interestingly, Di Meglio said that there wasn’t a lot of uptake when the company first introduced the solution. This was, in part, because agencies were afraid that they might unwittingly miss a legit 911 call, with tragic consequences, and/or they didn’t understand how the technology worked. But now, interest is picking up.
“A lot more people are using cell phones, so we’re seeing a resurgence, and we’re going to put the appropriate resources to it,” Di Meglio said.
Pardon the pun, but unintended 911 calls are a giant pain in the butt for every PSAP. In an era of diminished resources, when many centers are struggling just to keep up with legitimate emergency calls, this seems like a solution that definitely is worth a look.